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TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A decorated U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers carried out his rampage in a methodical manner and should face a court martial and, ultimately, the death penalty, a military prosecutor said on Tuesday.
Army Prosecutor Major Rob Stelle said that Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, 39, ventured out of his remote camp in Afghanistan on two revenge-fueled forays over a five-hour period in March.
The prosecutor, speaking at a pre-trial hearing in Washington state, cited the "heinous, brutal, methodical despicable nature of these crimes" in urging a military officer hearing the case to recommend a court martial.
"Most despicable was the murdering of children in their own homes," Stelle said during his 10 minutes of closing arguments, adding that nine of the dead were children and five were younger than 5 years old.
The shootings in Afghanistan's Kandahar province marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on an individual U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and damaged already strained U.S.-Afghan relations.
The government believes Bales was solely responsible for the deaths, and survivors have testified to seeing only a single U.S. soldier. But several indirect accounts have suggested that more than one soldier was involved.
A veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bales faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder, as well as charges of assault and wrongfully possessing and using steroids and alcohol while deployed.
He faces the possibility of the death penalty if a military commander decides to hold the court martial as a capital case.
A military jury must later come to a unanimous decision in deciding both guilt and whether to impose the death penalty. The military justice system also requires the president to approve the execution of a service member; the last execution in a U.S. military case occurred in 1961.
Prosecutors presented physical evidence to tie Bales to the crime scene, with a forensic investigator saying a sample of blood on his clothing matched a swab taken in one of the compounds where the shooting occurred.
Prosecutors said Bales drank with two fellow soldiers, then left his base and went to a village where he committed the first killings. He then returned to the camp and had a brief exchange with another soldier before leaving for a second village and killing more people, prosecutors said.
Bales' lawyers have not set out an alternative theory to the prosecution case, but have pointed out inconsistencies in testimony and highlighted incidents before the shooting in which Bales lost his temper easily, possibly setting up an argument that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Bales' defense attorney, Emma Scanlan, said that his judgment was clouded by alcohol, steroids and sleep aids. She took note of testimony that Bales wore a makeshift cape when he returned to his base, Camp Belambay, the night of the killings.
"Sergeant Bales was wearing a cape," she said. "Why in the world would someone so lucid be wearing a cape?"
Scanlan also suggested that more than one culprit was involved in the killings. "We have unanswered questions about timelines and mental states," she said during her 30 minutes of closing arguments.
With the hearing over, Investigative Officer Colonel Lee Deneke, an Army Reserve judicial officer who heard the testimony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, will send a report to the base's Commanding General Lieutenant General Robert Brown.
Brown could then take several weeks to make a decision on whether to refer the case to a court martial, an Army spokesman said.
Earlier in the hearing, witnesses testified that Bales had been upset by the lack of action over an attack on a patrol several days before the shootings in which one soldier had the lower part of a leg blown off by a bomb.
Bales is a married father of two from Lake Tapps, Washington. After the hearing on Tuesday, Bales' sister Stephanie Tandberg said his family supports him.
"Much of the testimony was painful, even heartbreaking. But we are not convinced the government has shown us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about what happened that night," Bales' sister-in-law Stephanie Tandberg told reporters outside the courtroom.
"As a family, we all grieve for the Afghan families who lost their loved ones on March 11, but we must not rush to judgment."
Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Cyntiha Johnston and Philip Barbara